The Perpetual Appeal of the Coffee House

SacherThroughout Europe many cities are popular for a café/bar-culture, e.g. Vienna, L’viv, Prague, Kraków and Ljubljana, to name only a few. In urban centres people like to spend their spare time in locales to socialise with other people. It is important to point out that “[c]afés are places where we are not simply served hot beverages but are also in some way partaking of a specific form of public life” (Laurier et al 2001: 195). The bar society, which we are taking nowadays for granted, was an important step in the development of modernity.

The first coffee houses appeared in the Muslim world, respectively the Ottoman Empire, which had already a long and rich tradition of coffee-culture. With the opening of the first coffee house in Constantinople it had set foot on the European continent. Finally the coffee culture has been imported to Europe by Venetian merchants in the middle of the 17th century. From there the idea of coffee houses spread quickly over whole Europe. In the year 1685 the Armenian merchant Johannes Diodato has founded the first coffee house in Vienna, where the coffee-culture had its strongest and – till today – most perceivable impact.

Soon after coffee houses all over Europe appeared. More and more among them got the permission to serve alcohol – pubs and bars evolved (the word ‘pub’ has been introduced to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1865 (Watson 2002: 190)).

The coffee house became a ‘third sphere of social life’ (Habermas 1989) or a ‘third place’ (Oldenburg 1999) “[b]etween the public sphere of state and court and the private realms of civil society and the family” (Habermas 1989: 30). In fact it is “the only kind of public building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions are not being in some way arranged for them” (T. Harrission as quoted in King 2008: 3).

This ‘third place’ in the idea of Oldenburg has been formulated by Munteanu et al (2011) as following:

This is a location that is not work and not home: rather a public place where people can easily meet, relax and interact. Such locations include not just pubs, but also social clubs, hairdressing salons, internet cafés, public libraries, amusement arcades and other similar but culturally specific locations. They are typified by their open, democratic nature and informality. (Munteanu et al 2011: 2)

This ‘third place’, which is neither work nor home provides the customer a feeling of freedom on a neutral ground.

The pub was also considered to be neutral territory. When entertaining at home some felt pressured to ‘play host’ and interactions could sometimes be a little stilted. The pub, by contrast, allowed conversations to ‘flow’. (King 2008: 14)

For people, who are going regularly to the same locale (with which term we will furthermore sum up ‘coffee house’, ‘pub’ and ‘bar’), it may become a ‘second home‘. As mentioned before being a customer of a locale is a special way of part-taking in the public life. A locale provides an identity, which is developing by a reciprocity between the locale and the customers. People identify with ‘their locale’.

“[T]he freedom of behaviour is larger than in usual social spaces” (Munteanu et al 2011: 15), but a locale has also its own unwritten rules and the clientèle might form a certain kind of sub-culture (or interest group) based on these rules. For ‘outsiders’ the locale may seem like a hui clos. “A meeting place is vital to the formation of a community. This meeting place can often be a pub which gathers its specific community with the respective sub-culture” (Munteanu et al 2011: 4). That does not necessarily mean that the community has an exclusive character. Quite the contrary, the community which perceives their regular locale as ‘second home’ are most likely to integrate strangers (as long as they fit to their identification-scheme), as they want to show their hospitality. It may take some time to get into the etiquette of a locale-community:

People often feel uncomfortable in a ‘local’ pub on their first visit because there is a sense that newcomers must prove their worth as fellow ‘participants’, often through a number of ritualised social activities. Over time, however, regular sessions spent in the pub, observing the hidden etiquettes that surround pub life, eventually lead to trust and affinity with existing regulars and provide evidence of a certain level of commitment to the community that the pub represents. (King 2008: 8)

Locales are in most cases places, where relationships between customers are based on egalitarianism. One special feature of a locale community is unconstraint: “One can at any time involve or [detach] from these social relationships or specific communities by joining or leaving the pub” (Munteanu et al 2011: 14).

This unconstraint provides a unique kind of friendship, a locale is “an opportune space in which to create relations based on spontaneous solidarity” (Laurier et al 2010: 198).

You might spend all night setting the world to rights with ‘John the Bandit’ or ‘Big Dave’ from the pub (we sometimes only know our pub-friends by their pub-names, not their real ones), but you wouldn’t invite them to dinner or go on holiday with them. The pub allows pub-friends to enjoy a level of fraternity and intimacy but places no expectation on developing this friendship further. (King 2008: 22)

Such ‘locale-friendships’ are crucial for the locale to function. We can sum up the sociotope, on which a locale’s identity is based, as following: It is an egalitarian, lose connection of people, which is concrete and principally inclusive by comparison.

Sources and further readings

BENNETT, A. et al 2002: Understanding everyday life. Oxford: Blackwell.

HABERMAS, Jürgen 1989: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

KING, Greene 2008: The enduring appeal of the local. Internet resource: <>, reviewed April 28th 2011.

LAURIER, E. et al 2001: ‘An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise’, in: Schaffer (ed.) 2001, 195-231.

MUNTEANU, C. et al 2011: Anthropology of Pubs: the Identity Role of a Pub. Internet resource: <>, reviewed April 26th 2011.

OLDENBURG, R. 1999: The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Da Capo Press.

WATSON, Diane 2002: ”Home from Home’: the pub and everyday life’, in: Bennett et al (2002), 183-228.


Author: André Savetier

Since 2011 André Savetier is actively working as a music journalist with an expertise on contemporary new wave music phenomena. His scientific specialization is anthropology of music and anthropology of popular culture. Savetier remains intrigued by the interplay between the aforementioned social phenomena, the told (and untold) legends of music and its roots.

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